Defence Forces chief of staff Lt Gen Seán Clancy and predecessors assured ministers ‘abuse was in the past’

Defence Forces chief of staff Lieutenant General Seán Clancy has received the Government leaders' backing to implement change. Photo: Mark Condren

Hugh O'Connell

The Defence Forces chief of staff and his predecessors assured the Government that robust measures were in place in the military to deal with crime, including rape and sexual assault, and support victims, a secret cabinet memo has shown.

The revelation of the assurances from Lieutenant General Seán Clancy and former military chiefs stretching back decades comes after a damning report found the Defence Forces is not currently “a safe working environment”. At best it “barely tolerates” and at worst “verbally, physically, sexually and psychologically abuses” women in its ranks.

Lt Gen Clancy faces calls to resign in the wake of the report of the Independent Review Group (IRG) chaired by retired judge Bronagh O’Hanlon.

However, he is backed by Tánaiste Micheál Martin and the coalition leaders. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s spokesperson said the military chief will “drive necessary change”.

Lt Gen Clancy admitted yesterday that the behaviour highlighted in the report continues to exist. He said those resisting change or acting inappropriately “will be held to account. They don’t belong in our organisation”.

But a memo given to ministers on Tuesday stated that “assurances have been provided by current and former chiefs of staff to the [Defence] Minister [Micheál Martin] to the effect that there are robust protection measures and grievance procedures in place to bring any perpetrators to justice and to support victims”.

These assurances dated back to the publication of an independent report into a range of interpersonal issues within the Defence Forces in 2002.

However, outlining the background to the establishment of the IRG, the cabinet memo said the Department of Defence had “concerns about the pervading culture and wanted to return to a ‘back-to-basics assessment’”.

The IRG’s landmark report found most female Defence Forces members have experienced some type of incident in the form of sexual harassment or assault, “especially on overseas missions”.

It said women occupy a “low status”, with 88pc of female respondents surveyed experiencing one or more form of sexual harassment, including sexual assaults. The Government is to establish a statutory inquiry on foot of the findings.

Last night, opposition TDs piled pressure on the top military brass, with Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín saying “it is hard to see how their positions are tenable given the fact that the Defence Forces are not a safe place to work”.

Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats stopped short of calling on Lt Clancy to resign, but Labour defence spokesperson Mark Wall said the inquiry should consider his role and that of his predecessors.

Sinn Féin defence spokesperson Sorca Clarke said: “What is needed is a complete change of culture and substantially more than a change in personnel. The chief of staff has voiced his support for reform and appears to be determined to implement what is necessary.”

Mr Varadkar told the Dáil the report was “shocking”, and added: “It’s not historic. It’s ongoing, and it appears to be widescale”.

However, when asked if he had confidence in the State’s top military officer, Mr Varadkar’s spokesperson said: “Yes. The Taoiseach has confidence in the chief of staff to drive the change necessary to ensure the dignity and integrity of the women and men of the Defence Forces is safeguarded at all times.”

Mr Martin said on Tuesday that abuse in the Defence Forces was happening, and he had made it clear to “senior command that changes have to be seen immediately”, but backed Lt Gen Clancy.

“I have confidence in the chief of staff in terms of his commitment to reform and change,” he said.

A spokesperson for Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said he also had confidence in Lt Gen Clancy.